Posted on Aug 1, 2000

The headline-grabbing rescue of Dr. Jerri Nielsen from the South Pole last fall featured Richard Saburro '69, who managed the rescue and coordinated the Air Force's drop of medical supplies to Nielsen in July.

Saburro is commander of Operation Deep Freeze, the military logistics operation that supports the U.S. Antarctic research on global change/warming, astronomy and astrophysics, the ozone hole, biology, and geology. “The military is called on for support due to our unique capabilities to operate in the austere and hazardous Antarctic environment,” Saburro explains.

Saburro commands the ships and aircraft that carry scientists, equipment, and support personnel from a staging base in New Zealand to Antarctica and within the continent to various research sites. Much of the work is done by ski-equipped C-130s flown by the 109th Airlift Wing out of Scotia, N. Y. Other craft include C-141s, C-17s, and C-5s as well as a Coast Guard icebreaker and two Military Sealift command ships.

To recap briefly: Nielsen's rescue was made necessary after she found a lump in her breast. The rescue effort occurred two weeks earlier than weather usually permits travel to the South Pole (extreme cold and blowing snow prevent flights into the South Pole except for four months of “summer” each year). Saburro had to coordinate 200 military planners, flight teams, airport personnel, and maintenance workers. Likewise, the July airdrop of medical supplies to Nielsen required the combined efforts of numerous military and civilian personnel. “It took some patience, and you really have no alternative in the Antarctic,” Saburro told an Albany Times Union reporter.

Saburro lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, and spends most of the Austral summer at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. He completed the Air Force ROTC program while at Union, entered the Air Force for six years of active duty, and was an Air National Guard reservist for fifteen years before returning to active duty as commander of Operation Deep Freeze in June, 1997. He says that he was attracted to the position by the adventure, the military promotion opportunity, the opportunity to live abroad, and the challenge of spearheading the Navy to Air Force transition (responsibility for Operation Deep Freeze is transferring to the Air Force after forty years as the responsibility of the Navy).

The opportunity to be in the national and world spotlight was also an attraction, Saburro admits. In addition to the rescue of Nielsen, Saburro has hosted visits by several government officials, including President Clinton.

But Neilsen's rescue caused the most attention. “I think they're fascinated because it's a human interest story involving managing and assembling resources to go to a remote area of the world, under hazardous conditions, to provide for the safety of a woman,” he told the Times Union. “Part of it is old-fashioned chivalry. And there is no doubt that the Air Force people who accomplished the mission are energized by the opportunity to call on their skills and knowledge to provide assistance to someone in such a remote area.”

Saburro's assignment ends in 2001, and he says that he looks forward to returning to civilian life. He had worked at the State University at Albany in technology development at the Center for Economic Growth and at the Center for Advanced Thin Film Technology on micro-electronics. Despite missing home, he says, “This has been an experience of a lifetime. I got all I bargained for and much more.”